Hiking along the Nepal India border

Features Issue 129 Aug, 2012
Text and Photo By Dinesh Rai

A two-day trek to Tumling lets trekkers walk in India and rest in Nepal.

When my friends suggested a Dashain trek to the hilltop settlement of Tumling, starting from Manebhajyang near Darjeeling, little did I know that our destination or rather, the lodge where we were to spend the night, would be in Nepal. Rajan Rai, our trek leader and one of the partners running Kanchenjunga Adventures in Darjeeling informed me, “We’ll be mostly walking on the Indian side but sleeping on the Nepal side.” In fact, Manebhajyang itself is a border town with some houses lying in Nepal while the rest are on the more populous Indian side of the border.

History tells us that some centuries ago, the border between Nepal and the neighboring countries of India and Sikkim (formerly an independent Kingdom until 1975) was fluid and where one’s territory ended depended on whose troops had recently prevailed on the battlefield. At one time, Nepali troops even occupied the forested hill of Darjeeling, until the all powerful British handed it back to Sikkim, only to take it back on lease from the tiny, powerless kingdom in 1835. When the British developed the hill station as a rest and recuperation center for their civil servants and other officials of the Raj, Nepali workers were brought in from across the neighboring hills of Nepal. Then when the tea industry was established and began to flourish, more of them rushed in to meet the ever growing demand for laborers, until people of Nepali origin dominated the population.

It was an unusually bright morning when some of us met at Pralad Roka’s Hotel Mona Lisa (below Tenzing Norgay Road, the road where Tenzing lived when he climbed Everest) where he also has his Kanchenjunga Adventures office. The porters picked up our bigger bags while we hung on to our day packs, then walked through Chowrasta to Alice Villa where we were met by two SUVS. On the drive to Manebhajyang, we made an unscheduled breakfast stop in Ghoom (2,225m), the highest point on the drive to Darjeeling (2,134m). Our plan to stop for breakfast at Dhodrey (2,500m) had been quickly abandoned when one of the trekkers failed to arrive here on time because of the colorful Phulpate processions along the way. This change of plan proved to be quite disastrous, as later that night, half the trekkers were queuing up outside the ATM booth (as one of our friends named the little toilet at Tumling).

We reached Manebhajyang at 11am, much later than planned and after a hasty cup of tea, drove on to our starting point at Dhodrey. We found our advance party relishing chana tarkari and sukha roti at Dhodrey. It normally takes two hours to arrive here. We discovered that the food at this little settlement was so much better than at Ghoom that most of us couldn’t resist a second breakfast.

When everybody was happily full and raring to go, we finally started off on our trek to Tumling. We bounded energetically through a pine forest and it was easy going initially. Later, the climb began but the gradient wasn’t anything to complain about and we walked at an easy pace taking photographs every now and then, until we reached a clearing around 1 p.m. We couldn’t resist taking a breather on the lovely grass here. More photos and snacks to top up on calories. I pulled out the peanut cookies I had bought at the Bhatbhateni Supermarket, which had caught my eye because of the label that said ‘Trekking Food’. They proved to be the most popular snack as my friends were going, “Hey, any of those cookies left?” After a fifteen minute break it was uphill again through pine and rhododendron forest. No flowers at this time of the year, unfortunately. The sun was in and out of the clouds every now and then, making it a comfortable hike. You don’t want the sun bearing down on you, as happens on the Ghorepani trek, climbing up from Tirkhedunga. One doesn’t easily forget that ‘killer climb’. An hour later, we stopped for lunch prepared by our porters which we relished. After this long break from walking, we were off again and came across lovely meadows covered in rich grass, a shepherd’s delight. The climb slowly and steadily led us up to Tonglu (3000m) which is about a four- hour walk from Dhodrey. This is a fun trek with not too much of steep climbing; it also provides a choice between taking the long and winding, easier route or the steeper short cut. Enjoying the view from Tonglu, we made our way gently down towards Tumling (2,900m).

While the road we were walking along is literally the border between Nepal and India, Shikhar Lodge where we halted for the night at Tumling, lies on a ridge on the Nepal side. However, all the supplies seem to come from India on Land Rovers, some of which date back to the 1950s. While one sign here says ‘Welcome to Singalila National Park’ which falls on the Indian side, the other one further down and on the other side of the road says, ‘Welcome to Nepal’. They’re both right of course, and one can’t help noticing the remarkable contrast between the two landscapes. Towards India is a steep drop but the hillside is mostly forested while the Nepali side has gentle slopes covered in grass, but few trees can be seen if any. When we reached Tumling at 3:30 p.m., a cloud cover blocked our view of the mountains but I was sure the next morning we would be rewarded with a good sighting. Up in these hills, seeing the mountains is like spotting a rare animal; it’s there for a while but gone the next moment. We went for a walk along the ridge enjoying sweeping views on both sides of the border, before finally settling in.

The Shikhar Lodge has both rooms and a dormitory for large groups. We were eleven strong and opted for the dormitory where we could all be together, sharing laughs and poking fun at each other. The solid stone walls keep the cold out efficiently. This fifteen-year-old lodge is run by Nila Gurung and her family. When asked how they came to be running a lodge in this remote outpost she said, “Five generations of our family have lived here. Our forefathers came from Tumlingtar and settled here, at which time ours was the only house. Now there are about fifty people living here. Our government promised us electricity long ago, but all they’ve done is put up some poles, and no electricity.” As a result, they rely on their own resources which seemed adequately reliable. After a sumptuous dinner, we sat around chatting and introduced ourselves to some Bengali families who were heading for Sandakphu, which calls for a few more days of walking uphill. We retired to the dormitory and before embarking on an engrossing card game which would last till late in the night, we enjoyed a bottle of Blue Label which a friend had brought all the way from Kolkata. What a gift!

The following morning, I rushed up to catch a glimpse of the gorgeous Mt. Kanchenjunga (8,586m), the third highest mountain in the world. I was late but luck was on my side, as the giant peak was still clearly visible through the ominous clouds. Less than a quarter of an hour later, and it appeared as if the clouds had devoured the Himalayas. It was soon time to pack and sit down for breakfast. And what a breakfast it was! One doesn’t expect such a delicious meal in a remote part of Nepal. We felt blessed, thanks to the Gurung family.

After the customary group photo in front of the lodge, we headed down to Chitray (2,295m) at 9 a.m. On the way, we stopped for tea at Megma and visited a private monastery which holds an incredible collection of statues of Buddhist deities which attracts people from far and wide. We also took photographs before our guide informed us: “Photographs are forbidden in here.” On the way down from Megma, we came across several interesting border pillars reminding us that we were walking on the edge. From here to Chitray the landscape is remarkably picturesque, with thick carpet grass and rolling hills. By the time we reached Chitray at 2:35 p.m., we were famished. We met a man in his ‘80s who’s still putting in trips to Sandakphu on horseback, leading a small caravan carrying supplies. After lunch, a short walk down, and we found ourselves in the Chitray Monastery with a row of fabulous chaityas and delightful flowers that enhanced their beauty, while the mist gently descending on them, lent the scene a mystical charm one can only find in high altitudes. From Chitray, we decided to drive back rather than walk along the pitched road which didn’t seem like a good idea. The drive was uneventful but we were glad to be back in Darjeeling by twilight. All in all, it was an easy hike, refreshing and a pleasant way to catch up with old friends, many of whom had not spent time together in decades. ■